The Lost Army of Cambyses
Persian king Cambyses invaded Egypt in 525 BC, overthrowing Egyptian pharaoh Psamtek III and signalling the beginning of Persian rule for the next 193 years. This success, however, did not continue. In the years immediately following his conquest of Egypt, Cambyses mounted several disastrous offensives. In one, he sent a mercenary army down the Nile into Kush (now Sudan) that was so undersupplied it had to turn to cannibalism to survive, and the soldiers returned in disgrace without even encountering the enemy.
Cambyses’ most famous failure remains his attempt to capture the Oracle of Amun in Siwa. Herodotus recounts how the oracle predicted a tragic end for Cambyses, and so the ruler dispatched an army of 50,000 men from Thebes, supported by a vast train of pack animals carrying supplies and weapons. The army is purported to have reached Farafra before turning west to cover the 325km of open desert to Siwa – a 30-day march without any shade or sources of water. Legend has it that after struggling through the Great Sand Sea, the men were engulfed by a fierce sandstorm, which buried the entire army.
Over the centuries, dozens of expeditions have searched in vain for a trace of Cambyses’ soldiers and, especially, the treasure they reputedly carried with them. Perhaps one day the shifting sands will reveal the remnants of this ancient army.
Much attention has been paid to Siwa’s unique history of intimate male relations. Back when Siwa’s citizens still lived in the Fortress of Shali, young men between the ages of 20 and 40 were expected to spend their nights outside the fortress to tend to the fields and protect the town from attack. These men of Siwa had a notorious reputation, not only for their bravery (they were known as zaggalah, or ‘club bearers’), but for their love of palm wine, music and openly gay relations. Single-sex marriages were apparently still practised in Siwa right up until WWII, although they had been outlawed in Egypt decades earlier.
Even though Siwa has been listed as a place to visit in several gay travel directories, the situation today is quite different. Residents of Siwa vehemently deny that there is a local gay sex scene, and travellers coming to Siwa in hope of ‘hooking up’ have been faced with increasingly homophobic sentiments. Siwan men are not amused at being propositioned by passing strangers – they are much more likely than foreigners to bear the brunt of anti-gay attitudes. Violent attacks on local men accused of homosexuality are not unheard of.
Local Knowledge: Respecting Local Customs
Take a look around, and when you see Siwan women, you probably won’t glimpse more than a pair of eyes peeking out from behind a shawl. Modesty is serious business here. If a Western woman wears shorts and tank tops, it’s about the same as walking naked through a stranger’s home – in other words, you probably wouldn’t do it. Perhaps even more than elsewhere in Egypt, travellers should dress conscientiously in Siwa. Women should cover legs, upper arms and cleavage, and men should stick to long pants rather than shorts. Displays of affection between couples should be saved for the hotel room. As with anywhere in the country, showing respect earns respect.